Students bring virtual reality to life

Photo of Brian Gioiele

For today’s students, creating research papers or Google slideshows is second nature. But two Shelton Intermediate School teachers hope to flip the script when it comes to such presentations.

School media specialist Ron Gydus and humanities teacher Rob Monaco had students in the Innovation 8 class research subjects and present the results using virtual reality — all with an eye toward keeping kids’ engaged while expanding their educational experience.

“We wanted something students had never done before,” said Gydus about assigned research projects. “I knew there had to be something out there for them, something fun yet advanced, so I started looking at implementing more innovative ways for them to present information.”

That was when Gydus became the student, researching various presentation methods before ultimately finding CoSpaces Edu, an intuitive educational technology which enables students and teachers to easily build their own 3D creations, animate them with code and explore them in virtual or augmented reality.

“Using virtual reality has a direct correlation between virtual reality usage and increased engagement by students,” said Gydus, “and added engagement boosts learning outcomes.”

“We are always looking at how we can transform what we already have here and expand on it using technology,” said Monaco on educating students. “The students are used to the same old ways of presenting information, but we always have to be searching for what’s next, what’s coming in the future and how we integrate that into what they are learning.”

Gydus was quick to point out that virtual reality should supplement classroom learning, not replace it.

“Virtual reality should be utilized to innovate and change both the way students go about comprehending knowledge, and the way they present it,” said Gydus. “It is about stepping away from the ordinary stuff and experiencing something in a world that students create.”

Since this project was new, Monaco said students were tasked with choosing “passion projects” to help temper any anxiety and heighten their enthusiasm for the work. Students’ ultimately created a “virtual museum,” allowing viewers to virtually walk through the halls of history on such topics as skateboarding, DreamWorks Animation and dinosaurs.

“The students were really engaged, while at the same time making and creating with new technology for them,” said Monaco. “Multi-sensory experiences and being able to move within a virtual space and engage with elements engages learners like never before.

“A student within a virtual reality experience is the master of their journey, with a great deal of autonomy in how they engage with the content,” added Monaco. “This starts with the simple fact that they are able to choose where to look but expands when you offer them experiences which are not on rails and allow them to explore freely.”

CoSpaces Edu, according to Gydus, offers the perfect solution for beginners just getting started with coding as well as scripting languages for more experienced coders.

“We need making in education to prepare our students for a world that is increasingly global, increasingly technological and increasingly complex,” said Gydus, adding that helped students with the four Cs of 21st century skills — critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication.

“We can’t be confident that the jobs of today will be the jobs of tomorrow,” said Gydus. “We don’t know that the technologies of today will be the technology of tomorrow. What we can do to prepare thinkers and lifelong learners that can be successful in any situation the future puts them in.”

Eighth grader Alyssa Teixeira delved deeper in enhancing her virtual reality project.

“I wanted to make (the dinosaurs) move, so I used coding,” said Teixeira. “It made the project more fun, being able to make the dinosaurs talk and walk. I coded all the dinosaurs. It was more work, but it was worth it. I was more excited to do the project that way.”

Fellow innovator Nicholas Palumbo presented the evolution of skateboarding.

“I think this project helped me with Cospaces so I can use it for other things,” said Palumbo. “This work helped with my researching, too. It was just a fun way to learn while talking about something I really like — skateboarding.”

In all, 56 students — two classes of Innovation 8 — come together, working as a group to complete the projects, which were presented in the Shelton Intermediate School media center in early June.

“This just proves the importance of innovation in education,” said Gydus. “Students are open and excited for trying new things, and they are digital natives. We start with idea or technology, and they tend to blossom and take it to the next level.

“These kids live in a world where 20 to 25 percent of the jobs have not yet even been created,” added Gydus. “We need to prepare for them for a world we do not even know about yet, and that world will involve technology, and that technology will be immersive, artificial intelligence. We as instructors need to find ways to get started here and now. We decided this was the year to do it, and these kids passed with flying colors.”

Gydus said allowing the students to choose their project allowed them to research a topic they already like.

“Then throw in some new technology, something different, you have something they really want to do,” said Gydus. “That is a good recipe for innovation.”